THE DRUMS OF A SENSELESS WAR
On April 1, 1917, a mob gathered in Baltimore. The provocation was not some injustice, but the prospect of peace. Inside, the president of the World Peace Foundation stepped to a podium. He had barely begun speaking when the mob broke in.
As the audience watched in horror, the screaming horde stormed the stage. The man froze. Then the band -- there were always bands in those days -- struck up the "Star Spangled Banner." Patriots all, the men stopped, straightened, saluted. Before the audience could sing "home -- of the -- bra-aave," the president of the World Peace Foundation fled out the back door. The following evening, the nation went to war.
A hundred and one years ago, America stepped to the edge of the modern world, peered into the carnage, and dove in. April 2, 1917 is not remembered with the reverence of Pearl Harbor or 9/11. The war America entered that day, unlike World War II, is not "The Good War." Yet it was a romantic age when danger was called "peril,” courage was "gallantry," and dead soldiers "the fallen." And so America marched into what historian Paul Fussell called "the full obscenity of the Great War."
April 2, 1917 was a dreary day in Washington, D.C. All afternoon rumors roamed the damp streets. A German army was said to be gathering on the Mexican border. Patriots were headed to the capital. President Woodrow Wilson, just six months after winning re-election on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War," was to address Congress that evening. Everyone knew his subject. It was all anyone talked about.
Eight weeks earlier, German U-boats had resumed open warfare in the North Atlantic. Betting they could force surrender before America could mobilize, Germans sank hundreds of ships without warning. Still, Wilson hesitated. "And so he is not going to fight at all!" the British prime minister said. "He is awaiting another insult before he actually draws the sword."
The insult came in a telegram. Intercepted in Mexico, the German telegram promised the return of "lost territory," aka the American Southwest, if Mexico would declare war on the U.S. Revealed in March 1917, the Zimmerman Telegram was the tipping point.
At 8:32 p.m. on April 2, the president stood before Congress. His baritone echoed across the hall. "German submarine warfare [is] a war against all nations... no quarrel with the German people... many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead..." But one phrase stood out. It would be headlined the next morning and chiseled into history.
"The world must be made safe for democracy."
In the next few days, crowds gathered across the country, cheering, singing, sending their "boys" off to fight. Newspapers whipped up the frenzy. "Hope of Mankind in the Balance" (New York World). "A New Battle Cry for Freedom" (Springfield Republican). Protest was crushed, German-Americans vilified, dissenters jailed. And after the full year it took to mobilize, America went to war.
In seven months of battle, 116,000 were killed, 200,000 wounded, a daily carnage exceeding every American war before or since. But the senseless slaughter of the Great War has been supplanted in modern memory by story after story from the Good War. The lessons of World War I, fought over tortured turf for reasons still obscure, are confined to history books. But Woodrow Wilson, a political science professor turned politician, already knew them.
After his speech, Wilson rode in silence back to the White House. He could scarcely believe the reaction he had aroused. Ovations. Shouts. Sitting with an aide, Wilson shuddered for humanity. "Think of what it was they were applauding," he said. "My message today was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that." Then he lowered his head and sobbed.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns. . .
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
-- "Anthem for Doomed Youth"
Wilfred Owen (killed in action Nov. 1918)